Leistikow: Revised thoughts on Iowa football's place in the Big Ten

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

A weekend without Iowa football was a chance to … actually watch college football.

While that sounds silly, Saturday was an unusual and welcome early-season experience. This marked Iowa’s earliest off weekend since 2001, and there was no football that Saturday after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Digesting real-time action of future Hawkeye opponents is rare for me, considering Iowa game days in my job are all-day affairs.

Iowa hasn't played a meaningful snap since this Devonte Young fumble recovery to put away the Sept. 14 game at Iowa State. The Hawkeyes are back in action Saturday against Middle Tennessee State.

And, though it was only one Saturday, it was a telling Saturday … followed by an eventful Sunday, as the Hawkeyes moved up four spots in the national polls to No. 14.

With all that in mind, I put together some varying thoughts on Hawkeye-related topics as the team returns to action Saturday against Middle Tennessee State (11 a.m., ESPN2).

Head coach Kirk Ferentz and players meet the media Tuesday.

Was Wisconsin that good … or Michigan that bad?

The Badgers’ 35-14 rout of the Wolverines was the most eye-opening Saturday result, both on paper and on film (it was 35-0 at one point). Before the season, these were the two Big Ten games I predicted the Hawkeyes to lose on their way to a West title — at Michigan on Oct. 5; at Wisconsin on Nov. 9.

Now, I’d change the Michigan game to toss-up; which is wild considering the Wolverines were 14½-point favorites over Iowa in preseason lines. (Iowa sportsbooks were listing it as Michigan by 3½ on Monday.) And now the Wisconsin game looks like a more serious uphill climb.

The most surprising revelation about the Wolverines was how frequently their defense was out of position. They have the athletes, but they were either outsmarted or poorly coached. That looks like a team that can be bullied.

Wisconsin, meanwhile, looks a lot like Iowa’s ideal blueprint. Well-coached. Physical offensive line. Sure-tackling defense. Solid quarterback play, married with good-not-great talent at receiver. But the biggest difference is Jonathan Taylor. A dynamic running back in that system is a game-changer, and Taylor’s 72-yard untouched jaunt in the first quarter was emblematic of that.

But, to answer the original question, the truth is probably somewhere in between. Wisconsin took advantage of Michigan’s first-quarter misfortune — a fumble inside the Wisconsin 10-yard line and a horrible replay-review ruling — and put the game out of reach early. If they played that game again, I doubt Wisconsin would be up 35-0.

That rugged Iowa schedule suddenly looks manageable.

Iowa is an early 23-point favorite against Middle Tennessee, which lost handily to Michigan (40-21) and Duke (41-18). If the Hawkeyes take care of business and stay healthy, they'll be 4-0 and met with a four-game October stretch that looks a lot less daunting than originally feared.

The Michigan game is there for the taking.

Imagine the electric home atmosphere Oct. 12 at Kinnick Stadium if the 5-0 Hawkeyes are hosting 5-0 and top-10 Penn State (very possible, considering the Nittany Lions face Maryland and Purdue the next two Saturdays).

Purdue on Oct. 19 is going to be tricky, no matter what, considering what Jeff Brohm has done to the Hawkeyes the past two years. But it’s at home, and the Boilermakers (1-2) are facing a lot of adversity already — a quarterback with concussion issues, a shaky offensive line and their best defensive player out for the season.

The Oct. 26 game at Northwestern suddenly moves into “should-win” turf for the Hawkeyes. The Wildcats (1-2) are usually bad in September, but they looked way behind schedule with Hunter Johnson at quarterback in an ugly 31-10 home loss to Michigan State. It wasn’t really that close.  

I’m not suggesting Iowa will go 4-0 in that stretch, but 4-0 doesn’t seem far-fetched — and 0-4 certainly seemed on the table in the preseason. If Iowa can head to Madison on Nov. 9 at 7-1, big goals are still within reach.

A renewed appreciation for disciplined, clean football.

Nebraska gained 690 yards at Illinois. What fan wouldn’t love those kind of video-game numbers from the Hawkeyes' offense?

But, boy, the Cornhuskers (3-1) needed every one of those yards to escape with a 42-38 victory. They committed four turnovers (all fumbles) and 119 yards’ worth of penalties and have a disastrous kicking game. It’ll be fascinating to see how Nebraska handles No. 5 Ohio State and ESPN's "College GameDay" coming to town this weekend.

While that's going on in Lincoln, here's the national statistical profile for the team in Iowa City: Third in fewest penalty yards; fourth in time of possession; tied for sixth in turnover margin; 15th in net punting; tied for first (at 100%) in red-zone scoring efficiency.

Those may not be eye-popping numbers. But they’re winning ones.

Iowa's resume warrants a No. 14 national ranking. But …

This three-week time largely behind the curtain — with Middle Tennessee being the only opponent between Iowa State and Michigan — is a crucial time of improvement for the Hawkeyes’ entire season.

It was all good news that Central Florida got beaten at Pittsburgh; that the Pacific-12’s best playoff hope, Utah, went down at USC; that Notre Dame won't go undefeated. But in this case, coach talk is real talk: Iowa (and the rest of the Big Ten) can only take advantage by taking big week-to-week steps.

Iowa doesn't play its first Big Ten West opponent until Oct. 19. Purdue and Northwestern could have come to life by then. Minnesota might be sizzling by November. Nebraska might have things cleaned up by Game 24 of the Scott Frost era on Black Friday.

The Hawkeyes' next step is their biggest step: Taking care of Middle Tennessee in dominating fashion would be an ideal way to finish September.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.